(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday overturned jury verdict awarding $5 million to a Tennessee railroad electrician who developed asbestosis on the job. The court ruled 7-2 that jurors should’ve been instructed to award the money only if the worker demonstrated that his alleged fear of developing lung cancer was “genuine and serious.”
The case centered on the lower courts’ interpretation of Norfolk & Western R. Co. v. Ayers (2003), in which the Supreme Court allowed workers with asbestosis who feared cancer to pursue damages for pain and suffering under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. The Ayers ruling specified that workers carried the burden of proving that their fear of cancer was “genuine and serious.”
Railroad electrician Thurston Hensley brought a fear-of-cancer claim against CSX Transportation in Tennessee state court.
The trial court rejected CSX’s request to include jury instructions stating that, in order to recover damages, Hensley “must demonstrate” the authenticity and gravity of his alleged cancer fear.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s $5 million award, saying the jury instructions were not necessary, because “the mere suggestion of the possibility of cancer has the potential to evoke raw emotions.” The appeals court added that the Ayers ruling “did not discuss or authorize jury instructions.”
In a per-curiam decision, the Supreme Court begged to differ.
It cited a footnote in Ayers that explicitly recognized the “verdict control devices available to the trial court.” Those “include, on a defendant’s request, a charge that each plaintiff must prove any alleged fear to be genuine and serious,” the footnote states.
The lower court’s reference to “raw emotions” was a “serious misunderstanding of the nature and function of the jury,” the justices added.
“[T]he fact that cancer claims could ‘evoke raw emotions’ is a powerful reason to instruct the jury on the proper legal standard.”
Justices Stevens and Ginsburg filed separate dissents, each arguing that the lower courts were under no obligation to include the instructions.